Posted by Bob Martin
Heather Davis, Executive Director of Learning Works, shared fascinating insights into the innovative programs the organization provides to help children, teens, adults, and families realize their potential and become stronger participants in the community. Davis acknowledged the contributions of Rotarians, notably Steve Mortimer, Steve Stromsky and Mark Foster, among others who work as volunteers. Davis summarized the three goals of their programs, saying:  “Learning Works supports over 3,000 students in Southern Maine by bolstering elementary students’ academic and social-emotional wellbeing, transforming the lives of teens and young adults, and building the capacity of New Mainers.”
Pointing to several charts, Davis detailed the severe challenge Maine has because of poor performance in reading and math proficiencies: “Over a ten-year period, reading proficiency at the 4th grade level has only improved one percent, despite all the investment in our school systems. Eighth-grade math proficiency increased only two percent over 10 years.” While the high school dropout rate dropped from 11 percent to 6 percent, it’s still the highest in New England. “Serious systemic inequities in the school system affect non-English speaking students more severely. They are 25 percent more likely not to graduate.” On a personal level, she shared the story of her brother who dropped out of school because a traditional program was not working for him. He managed to find an alternative, achieved advanced degrees, and now works as a researcher.
Davis said that Learning Works maintains five innovative workshops supporting over 3,000 students in after-school programs that have resulted in 70 percent of the participants increasing reading comprehension levels. She said that data from their second-grade program in Biddeford demonstrated that most of the participants were at, or above, grade level for reading scores at the end of the program. Since these programs continue on, she added that as the participants stay in the program through the fifth-grade, Learning Works is able to increase the number of interventions they have with students to continue to accelerate reading and math comprehension.
Davis said the organization’s second goal was to transform the lives of teens and young adults, particularly helping them complete their high school degrees. Learning Works provides alternative educational opportunities for persons age 16 to 24 who have dropped out of school. “We have an 80 percent success rate,” she said. “One hundred percent of these people stay in Maine.” The program not only provides specific education for a high school degree, but also provides vocational training in construction, culinary arts and hospitality, and is exploring a new track focused on healthcare. Davis highlighted one participant who graduated from the program and was accepted at Bowdoin College where he is now a junior.
The third focus of Learning Works is to build the capacity of New Mainers. These programs include English language and literacy program using conversation to help people practice speaking, and opportunities designed to immerse them into American culture and activities, including field trips to go shopping, eat in restaurants, and other ways to become familiar with their new community. Learning Works provides one-on-one tutoring, which includes the participation of Rotarians, and workshops on various topics, such as financial literacy, which Mark Foster spoke about to the club.
Davis said that their data showed that these interventions work, but they want to do more. She is working with the state and several school districts to blend her organization’s innovative approach into the regular curricula. “This isn’t easy,” she said. “All of these systems lack the funds to make changes.”
For more information on Learning Works, or ways to volunteer, visit their website:
(Photo L-R: Heather Davis and President-elect Amy Chipman.)